Time to Talk about Ma

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I have no doubt that Ma is going to be a polarizing film. When the trailer dropped a few months ago, Film School Rejects, The Hollywood Reporter, and other entertainment sites pointed out that though the film stars Octavia Spencer, the rest of the production, from the director, to the screenwriter, to the cast, are all white. So the question was posed how can Ma possibly be some type of biting racial commentary when it doesn’t feature people of color, other than its lead? It’s a fair question, especially when you consider that Blumhouse, one of the  biggest production companies in horror, has been criticized for having white men direct all of their movies. (To be fair, Blumhouse has promised to remedy this in the new future).

The trailer, however, doesn’t reveal very much about the film. It does provide the basic premise: Ma, aka Sue Ann (Spencer), befriends a group of teens, buys them booze, and invites them over to party. When they eventually find something off about her, she starts stalking them. The only one of the teens who really stands out is doe-eyed Maggie (Diana Silvers), a new girl in town who relocated after her mother, Erica (Juliette Lewis), divorced her father. It turns out that Erica relocated to her hometown from San Diego and faces humiliation when her former high school classmates catch her slinging cocktails at a casino in a skimpy outfit, but, as she tells Maggie, she has to pay the bills somehow.

The film at least touches upon class. Erica is a single mom doing what she has to do to get by, and Ma, who was bullied as a teen, hence her thirst for revenge,  relates to Erica and generally sympathizes with her, especially since she went from being popular in high school to an outcast when she found herself back in her rural hometown. Both single women have something in common, though this could have been explored more. The trailer also avoided revealing the torment that Ma faced as a teen, which triggers the revenge she enacts in the closing 20 minutes. Whether or not Ma’s backstory suffices is another question.

Perhaps more importantly, Ma confronts the mammy stereotype, which is fitting since the film is directed by Tate Taylor, director of The Help, the wildly successful film that made Spencer a household name but faced blow back because of its white savior trope and the way it depicted black women in subservient roles. Here, Spencer blazes her own trail, and damn, is she good. This is HER film. She does whatever she wants. At her job, she refuses to answer the phones. When Maggie’s friend Haley (McKaley Miller), tells her that she needs a man in her life, she just glares at her and plots revenge for that comment. Ma generally has her own agency, and if there are moments when she falls into the mammy stereotype, it’s simply as a means to achieve her goals. She plays the role at times only to get what she wants.

Ma is by no means a perfect film, but Spencer’s performance alone makes it worth viewing. It’s a film very much aware of the roles women are supposed to fit into, especially black women, and to its credit, it tries to challenge that.  There’s no doubt that the film will be polarizing, but, at the very least, it’s already starting a conversation, and it’s one of the horror genre’s most interesting mainstream offerings this year.

There are two commentaries on the film worth reading, both written by people of color.  The first review was published over at Graveyard Shift Sisters, and it goes into more detail about how Ma confronts and subverts the mammy stereotypes. The second article, written by black horror scholar Robin R. Means Coleman, makes an argument that we’re currently living through a black horror renaissance. Coleman writes, “The horror genre is maturing and becoming more imaginative and inclusive – in who can play hero and antihero, and who gets to be the monster and savior. The emergence of black horror films is just one chapter in a story that includes women taking on more prominent roles in horror films, too.”

That, at the very least, is worth celebrating.

 

Review: Brightburn (2019), A Dark and Gory Retelling of Superman

Imagine if Superman was a sexually-frustrated, 12-year-old boy who, instead of using his powers for good, uses them to stalk a classmate he has a crush on, slaughter farm animals, and terrorize anyone who gets in his way. That is essentially the plot of the new James Gunn-produced film Brighburn, a gory retelling of the Superman story that is a blend of the comic book and horror genres. It’s nice to see Gunn return to his horror roots, if only as a producer. Director David Yarovesky, meanwhile, kicks off the summer in style with a decent addition to the creepy kid sub-genre of horror.

So much of the story functions as an inversion of the Superman narrative. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman), a loving husband and wife who can’t conceive a child on their own. After we witness them about to try again, BOOM!, a red, glowing meteorite crashes on their farm in rural Kansas. Of course, they decide to adopt the boy inside the spacecraft and don’t tell him his true story until about halfway through the film, which only exacerbates their problem and sends him into another fit of rage.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so spend time establishing Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) as a likable boy. He has a good relationship with his parents, shown, in part, through photo albums. We see him as a smiling toddler, and, for a moment at least, wonder how he could possibly kill anyone. He excels in school, to the point that he can rattle of random facts in class about the differences between bees and wasps, and he draws the affection and attention of fellow classmate Caityln (Emmie Hunter). The film would have been better served spending a little more time showing the innocent side of Brandon, before he starts butchering poor chickens and murdering people. He becomes a terrifying villain rather early in the movie, shortly after his 12th birthday, triggered by nightmares, weird chants, and visions of his spacecraft that crash-landed on Earth and that his parents keep hidden under a trap door in their barn.

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Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn)

The kills in the film are quite bloody and gruesome and may turn off comic book fans that aren’t used to a regular diet of horror films. One prolonged death scene features a shard of glass falling into the victim’s eye. The way she slowly pulls it out is reminiscent of something you’d see in a Lucio  Fulci or Dario Argento film. In another scene, one poor victim tries to escape in his pick-up truck, until the evil boy wonder raises it in mid air and drops it on the road, leaving the victim’s face split in half, with his jaw hanging loose. Brandon is rather sadistic, if nothing else.

That said, the first few kills in the film are generally characters we’re not that invested in, and many of the characters, other than Brandon and his parents, are fairly one-dimensional, mere fodder to be brutalized on screen. The deaths would have been more effective if the characters had added depth. Additionally, there’s just something uncomfortable about seeing a 12-year-old frequently invade Caitlyn’s bedroom.

The parents, however, are the best part of the film. Both Banks and Deman give solid performances. Having wanted a child for so long, Tori is the last to believe that her baby boy could be capable of evil, even when his powers ram his father against a kitchen wall. Kyle, though, is more suspecting of his son, especially once he starts disappearing late at night and lying about where he’s been. At one point, Kyle even says, “He’s not our son. He’s a thing we found in the woods.” Earlier in the film, there are a few scenes of genuine tenderness between Kyle and Brandon, before he starts killing people, of course. The film’s real strength is found not only in its special effects, but also in the dynamic between Brandon and his parents, especially Tori’s reluctance to blame him for anything because she’s always wanted a child, and she certainly doesn’t want to believe that her sweet, innocent baby boy could possibly crush a girl’s hand at school because she refused to return his affection.

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Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks)

Comic books have always had dark twists and turns, and they’ve certainly dabbled in the horror genre. However, no Marvel or DC movie has offered anything like Brightburn or really hit upon twisted story arcs. After years away from the genre, it’s nice to see Gunn return to horror. Brightburn is one of the more decent genre films this year, but with some heavy horror hitters on the near horizon, including a revamped Child’s Play and It: Chapter 2, as well as soon-to-be released features  by some of the genre’s most talented younger directors, including Ari Aster (Midsomar),  Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse), and  Alexandre Aja (Crawl), it has yet to be seen if Brightburn will be that memorable in the long run. For the time being, though, it’s a fun popcorn film to kick off summer, especially while awaiting some of the bigger horror hits dropping later this summer and heading into fall. It makes you wish that Gunn was still directing films like Slither and Dawn of the Dead (2004).

Oh, and for the true blue horror fans, make sure to stay as the credits start rolling for a really cool scene featuring horror icon Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Slither, “The Walking Dead”).

Final Grade: B

 

 

 

 

 

Retro Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2

Although A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 initially faced mixed reviews and a backlash from some fans, due to  major shifts it made from Wes Craven’s original film, over the years, it’s earned a cult following because of its queerness and metaphor about repressed sexuality. With the release of last month’s documentary Scream, Queen!: My Nightmare on Elm Street, focusing on the film’s troubled production and homophobia in Hollywood, now is a good time to revisit Freddy’s Revenge, aka “the gayest slasher film of all time.”

Released in 1985, the film grossed $30 million at the box office, so it drew in some big bucks. The story picks up about a year after the original film when outsider Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) moves into a large white house on Elm Street, which turns out to be Nancy Thompson’s (Heather Langencamp) former home, the final girl from the original film. The opening scene is a dream sequence, featuring a quiet, pale, and gaunt-faced Jesse sitting on the back of a school bus, while his classmates chuckle at him.  Soon after his classmates mock him, Jesse encounters Freddy for the first time, when the bus driver morphs into him, and he drives the bus towards hell. Jesse wakes up screaming in a cold sweat. These opening shots of Jesse not only establish him as an outsider, but they can also be read as a metaphor for the AIDs crisis.  During the dream sequences/encounter with Freddy, Jesse is always depicted as pale and sickly. When he wakes up, his body is drenched in sweat.

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Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) in the opening scene

The second encounter between Jesse and Freddy is much more sexual in nature, though apparently toned down from what it could have been. Unlike the original film, Freddy’s not out to kill the protagonist because his parents burned him alive. Rather, he wants to own Jesse’s body and use him to commit murders. Jesse encounters him after sleepwalking through his house, and apparently, Robert Englund wanted the scene to be even more sexual in nature, telling Patton, at one point, to suck on one of Freddy’s blades. That part of the scene never happened, but the intimacy between Freddy and Jesse, and Jesse trying to suppress “the monster,” drives the rest of the narrative.

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Jesse and Freddy (Robert Englund)

The film’s not-so-subtle subtext adds another layer when Jesse meets the jock Ron Grady (Robert Rusler) at school. Grady spends most scenes with his shirt off, and there’s more sexual tension and connection between he and Jesse than between Jesse and his girlfriend, Lisa (Kim Myers). Add to that the fact that their gym teacher, Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell), gets off on telling Ron and Jesse to “assume the position” when they act up in class, and then orders them to do push-ups. About halfway through the film, Jesse walks through pouring rain and ends up at an S & M club where he encounters the coach wearing a leather daddy outfit. Talk about a bold scene for the mid-1980s! Schneider’s murder is rooted in kink and sex. He’s tied up with jump ropes, stripped in a shower, whipped with towels, and slashed.

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Coach Schnieder (Marshall Bell) and Jesse

The rest of the film centers around Jesse’s struggle to fight off Freddy, as he screams,  “He’s inside me, and he wants to take me again!” This line is about as subtle as the homoerotic images in Jesse’s bedroom, including a sign on his door that says “No Chicks Allowed” and a board game called Probe. When Freddy is about to take over Jesse’s body at the beginning of the final act, Jesse rejects a heterosexual relationship with Lisa and instead runs to Grady’s house/bedroom and begs him to help him stay awake. What transpires during this scene, namely the moment Freddy slices through Jesse’s chest, is one of the best transformation/effects scenes in modern horror cinema. It’s also one of the strongest metaphors in the film. Commenting on this scene for the three-hour documentary Never Sleep Again, Englund said there are several ways to read this scene. Freddy/the monster can represent the self-hate that Jesse feels, or he can represent homophobia that others inflict upon the gay community, what Englund calls “the taunt.” This scene  is the strongest in the film, layered and nuanced, with killer special effects.

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Jesse and Grady (Rober Rusler)

Several other scenes  don’t quite work as well, especially when Freddy enters reality and runs around at a pool party at Lisa’s house. This scene is just silly and ineffective.  In commenting on the film for Never Sleep Again, Craven said that much of the film feels like a series of scenes instead of a cohesive story, a problem, he said, that dogged some of the other sequels. It’s also campy to that point that most of the teenagers are taller than Freddy, so how much of a menace can he really be outside of the dream world?

The film opened to mixed reviews, and even today, it only has a 41 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It also nearly ruined Patton’s career, who was typically type-cast in gay roles following Freddy’s Revenge. Additionally, for years, screenwriter David Chaskin insisted he didn’t write the sequel as a gay film, but it was only because of Patton’s acting that it turned out that way. At the time of filming, Patton was still in the closet, and he’s stated in many interviews that the filming process was difficult. Only within the last few years has Chaskin admitted that there was supposed to be a gay subtext to the film. Director Jack Sholder, meanwhile, still insists that wasn’t the intent. Really?

Freddy’s Revenge is not the best sequel in the franchise. That title goes to Dream Warriors or perhaps New Nightmare. Yet, the film deserves major props for what it did in the mid-1980s, for all of the subtle and not-so-subtle gay overtones. Unlike the other sequels, it also did something different and rewrote some of the rules. Instead of a final girl, there was a final boy, and instead off remaining in the dream world, Freddy broke through reality quite frequently, which he wouldn’t do again until Craven returned to the director’s chair for New Nightmare. It took a while, but the film has found its audience.

For an interesting and in-depth read on the film, check out Buzzfeed’s long-form article from 2016 here. 

The Ranger: Blood, Guts, and Punk Rock Mayhem

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If you’re looking for a contemporary slasher film with a wicked soundtrack, then check out The Ranger, the directorial debut by horror writer/producer Jenn Wexler. On the one hand, the film feels like Friday the 13th meets Suburbia and Repo Man, while on the other hand, the film takes the familiar trope of the final girl and does something interesting with it. Though the film is supposed to be set in the 1980s (I think?), it feels far less nostalgic than the recent wave of 80s throwback TV shows and films. The Ranger is surprisingly refreshing.

The film opens with a gunshot echoing outside of the woods in upstate New York before the camera zooms in on a distressed, younger version of protagonist Chelsea (Jete Laurence)  sitting on a rock next to the film’s  antagonist, The Ranger (Jeremy Holm). Moments later, the police arrive, and the viewer is initially kept in the dark about what transpired. The film then shifts to the present and introduces a teenage Chelsea (Chloë Levine) and her merry band of punk rock friends, four total, who thrash around at shows,  take a pink hallucinogenic drug called Echo, and wear leather jackets adorned with studs and back patches of bands (I’m pretty sure none of the bands etched on their coats are real). The narrative escalates quickly when a show is busted by  police and one of the young punks stabs a cop, causing the friends to flee in a van to the setting shown during the first scene/flashback. Once this transition is made from the city to the countryside, the film’s surreal color palate shifts too, from vibrant pinks to grays and blues.

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Chelsea (Chloë Levine) and out-of-focus boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu)

It’s immediately clear that Chelsea feels a closeness to the cabin/wilderness, and the viewer slowly learns more about her story, specifically how she enjoyed time there as a kid with her uncle, a writer who bought the cabin  to be alone and focus on his craft. It’s also evident that Chelsea doesn’t quite fit in with the rebel rousers. They mock her when she points out perennials growing near the cabin, and they totally dismiss her when she asks them not to smoke in the cabin. Additionally, she has a respect for nature that they don’t have, being from the city. One of them, Jerk (Jeremy Pope), tags trees with spray paint, which draws Chelsea’s ire. She’s the only one, it seems, who cares about the trees. Another friend is reprimanded for starting a fire randomly, when Chelsea reminds him that there is a fire pit just feet away. Yet, the young punks don’t want anything to do with authority or rules. They’d rather jump on the cabin’s couches and howl moments after stepping inside. The friends also  dismiss Chelsea’s tragedy when she opens up to them about her uncle and her loss, which is shown through short flashbacks, often out of focus or fuzzy.

Chelsea’s boyfriend, Garth (Granit Lahu), reminds her that the punks are her family, and families are imperfect, but she’d be happier if she accepted them for who they are. And yet, it’s clear that they never fully accept her, thus complicating her place within the circle of leather-clad punks. In an interview with 25YL, Wexler commented that even the punk scene, which preaches individuality, still has its cliques. She says, “Something that’s interesting to me about the punk scene is it’s a place for individuality and it encourages individuality through fashion and raging and throwing your body around and all this stuff, but at the same time there’s still a clique element to it. I don’t know. I’ve always felt like an outsider no matter what clique I’m in, I always feel like an outsider. Even when I’m surrounded by people I still feel like an outsider, so the punk world just seemed like a thematically appropriate place to explore that. And then to position all of that against this figure of authority who’s, ya know, the complete opposite.”

Chelsea is indeed an outsider, the one carrying a trauma that her friends don’t fully grasp and that is shown to the viewer only through murky fragments, which is similar to the way memory operates, especially when processing trauma. Garth preaches that they’re the only family she has, and as imperfect as their life may be, she should accept it. However, the punks, in their own away, have a rigid code of conduct, everything from their dress to their misbehavior.

As Wexler said, The Ranger is juxtaposed with the punks’ disdain for authority and their anarchy in the woods.  He’s an excellent foil.  Before he kills in glorious fashion, using everything from axes to animal traps, he recites park rules. The punks have their own rules and so does he.  The film has just the right level of gore, and the maniacal grin that Holm gives the character, either before or after a kill, adds another layer of fun to the film. The Ranger is indeed a good slasher villain.

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The Ranger (Jeremy Holm)

Now here comes a major spoiler alert!

By the film’s last 20 minutes, we learn that Chelsea may not be that different from The Ranger and the viewer learns that she killed her uncle with a shotgun during target practice.  Whether it was accidental or intentional we don’t know. The film begins with dialogue from The Ranger, telling Chelsea that the forest needs more timber wolves, which were driven out long ago by European colonists. Chelsea, The Ranger says, is a wolf, just like himself, a wolf who likes to kill.  She also likes rules. After all, she’s the one who tells her friends not to smoke in the cabin. In the closing minutes, when Chelsea pummels him with a pair of binoculars, he grins and says over and over again to her, “We’re the same.” By this point, Chelsea is blood-soaked and releases a primal howl. Whether or not the two are the same is left up to the viewer.

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A blood-soaked Chelsea

Like Scream did in the 1990s, The Ranger rewrites the Final Girl trope.  The viewer eventually learns that she too has killed, and like Neve Campbell’s Sydney, she too is carrying around a trauma, but one triggered by her own actions. By the conclusion, it’s unclear whether or not she’ll kill again, but the wolf imagery that ends the film leaves open the possibility.  However, perhaps Chelsea will do her own thing without any type of uniform or hair dye. She wasn’t comfortable with the punk rock code of conduct, and she never admits to The Ranger that she’s just like him. Without The Ranger and without her punk “family,” she’s free to do her own thing.

Wexler’s The Ranger is a fun romp, as rowdy at times as a slam pit. Yet, beneath the power chord soundtrack, the film has some interesting layers to it, namely in the way that it handles fractured memory, trauma, and  slasher film tropes.

The film is currently streaming on Shudder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Long Live the Drive-in and the Horror Host

My fiancé and I have stayed home for the last several Friday nights. It’s not because we desperately need to save money or because we don’t still enjoy a drink at a bar. We stay home every Friday because we tune into the horror streaming service Shudder to watch “The Last Drive-in with Joe Bob Briggs.” Every week, Briggs, formerly of TNT’s “Monster Vision,” hosts a double feature laced with commentary that’s a blend of  film criticism, humorous rants on everything from Tesla to beauty pageants, and most importantly, a serious love and knowledge of ALL aspects of the genre, from J-horror to American staples like Hellraiser and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The return of Briggs and the success of “The Last Drive-In” (the first marathon crashed Shudder’s servers back in July), proves that it’s time for the horror host to return and resurrect a sense of community that’s desperately needed in the age of social media and streaming devices.

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Watching Joe Bob every Friday involves more than simply pulling up Shudder. A host of fans, which Briggs long ago dubbed the drive-in mutant family, live tweets during the broadcast. Briggs’ assistant,  Diana “Darcy the Mail Girl” Prince, interacts with fans and retweets their observations, pictures, and art work. She deserves major props for fostering a community and helping with the show’s success. She, too, has an intense love and knowledge of the genre. Because of “The Last Drive-in,” films like Castle Freak and C.H.U.D. trended on Twitter, at least for one night. The show’s popularity also stems from Briggs’ astute commentary, which occurs during breaks,  while he’s seated in a lawn chair next to a trailer, holding a Lone Star beer (he is a native Texan, after all). Even if he doesn’t love every film, such as C.H.U.D., he still respects the art form enough to research the history and production, thus providing countless interesting tidbits, like how a screenplay came together or why the director made certain choices. With the rise of social media and sites like Rotten Tomatoes, it’s become common for us to simply offer a thumbs up or thumbs down to a film or various other art forms, without much nuanced opinion. Briggs is the contrast. His commentary contains layers. He’s able to remind the audience why there’s merit in even a long-forgotten B slasher movie like Madman, which he screened during the fourth episode. Even in the cheesiest film, he can find value and remind audiences that work still went into the screenplay, the set design, and the general production.

As Briggs has said during countless print and online interviews, streaming a film can be a lonely, isolating experience. Films are meant to be a communal experience, especially horror films. We enter a darkened theater to confront our fears and anxieties and probably feel a little better once the lights turn on and the monster has been defeated. Horror, as Stephen King has said, is a safety valve. But streaming services have removed that communal experience. Even video stores, where fans once roamed rows of VHS tapes or asked a clerk for a recommendation, are extinct. Shudder’s decision to revive the horror host back in July, when Briggs hosted 13 films in honor of Friday the 13th, was a bold move, and it was supposed to be a one-off, truly “The Last Drive-in.” However, it was too successful. Briggs then returned to host Thanksgiving and Christmas marathons, until returning permanently at the end of March for the Friday night double feature. What Shudder and “The Last Drive-in” have done is unique in the sense that they’ve taken the latest medium, the streaming service, but injected a much-needed communal aspect. It’s why Briggs’ show really should be seen live. Fans have harnessed social media to interact with each other during the broadcast. This venture has become so popular and successful that now, every Friday at 8 pm, Shudder features a one-hour countdown until the next episode of “The Last Drive-in,” which is just a live shot of the set, including the adorable Iguana Ernie, who typically just chills in his tank every week. On Twitter, fans post screen shots of their flat screens and whatever beer and food they ordered, as they hunker down for the double feature, which often lasts until 2 am or so, due to the commentary.

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Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl

The age of the drive-in and watching movies on a big screen under a starry summer sky may be a nostalgic image of a bygone American era, but Briggs has proved that in this moment, the age of social media and broken politics, we desperately need that sense of community. The success of “The Last Drive-in” may cause other horror hosts who were once household names, like Elvira, to return to prime-time slots, either on Shudder or other streaming services.

Meanwhile, at least in northeastern, Pennsylvania, there is a chance to frequent local drive-ins, including the Mahoning Drive-in in Lehighton, which shows several horror features throughout the summer and fall months. They even host a Universal Monsters weekend and a slasher marathon in August dubbed Camp Blood, which includes games and costume contents. The Circle Drive-in in Dickson City screens newer films from spring to autumn every weekend, and last year, a Cult Movie Club formed, which focuses solely on horror. Screenings are once a month, starting in April and running through Halloween. Find them on Facebook for more info. Additionally, the NEPA Horror Film Festival is now held at the Circle Drive-in in October. The film fest showcases short independent films from filmmakers around the world. Who knows, one of them could be the next George A. Romero or Tobe Hooper. This year, there will be guests, including Felissa Rose (Angela in Sleepaway Camp), who appeared at the fest a few years ago and has been a frequent guest on Briggs’ show.

Streaming services aren’t going away, but “The Last Drive-in” has used that medium to create a community and bring horror fans together. The show’s wild success makes a definitive argument for other horror hosts to return.

 

Review: Lizzie (2018) Offers a Bold Take on a Well-Known Story

Everyone already knows the story of Lizzie Borden, a 19th Century woman from a well-to-do New England family who was accused and then acquitted of murdering her father and step-mother. Borden has become a myth in pop culture, her story recounted through music, novels, and even the TV show “Supernatural.” The horror streaming service Shudder recently debuted a fresh take on the story, obtaining exclusive rights to the film Lizzie, which manages to humanize Borden in the face of her puritanical father.

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Chloë Sevigny as Lizzie Borden and Kristen Stewart as  Bridget Sullivan

Directed by Craig William Macneill, Lizzie stars Chloë Sevigny as Borden and Kristen Stewart as the Irish maid Bridget Sullivan. Because Borden was acquitted and the murders are still technically unsolved, the film is able to offer a unique take on a rehashed story. At the core of the narrative is a relationship between Borden and Sullivan, who can’t deny their attraction for each other. Sevigny and Stewart’s chemistry is the film’s real strength, especially when they first come in contact with each other, either hiding in each other’s bedrooms, away from the gaze of the tyrannical patriarch Andrew Borden (Jamey Sheridan), or brushing against each other in the upstairs hallway. The sexual tension builds as the film progresses, until they finally kiss, but not without consequences, as Andrew catches them and later calls his daughter an abomination.

The film’s main flaw is that the relationship between Borden and Sullivan is not given sufficient room to breathe and develop, despite the nearly two-hour run time. Frankly, there aren’t enough scenes of them together. Near the end of the film, when Sullivan visits Borden in jail she asks, “What am I to you?” In the last 20 minutes, a narrative is spun regarding Borden’s recruitment of Sullivan to help with the murders and topple a sexually abusive patriarch, but with more character development, it indeed would have been clearer what Sullivan is to Borden. Is their relationship real and meaningful? Is it just lust? Was Borden merely using Sullivan to commit murder and  obtain independence? It’s never fully clear, but when Sevigny and Stewart are on screen together, committing what Andrew labels “an abomination,” their energy is palpable.

Watch the trailer for Lizzie:

Lizzie does succeed in humanizing Borden, especially when she confronts her abusive father or her womanizing uncle John Morse  (Denise O’Hare), who is determined to steal her inheritance. This Lizzie is bold and outspoken, willing to challenge the repressive gender norms of the time, including those that exist within her family. The film also touches upon mental illness and madness, namely how Lizzie is an outsider within her family because of spells (epilepsy, maybe?), but again, these scenes and this story arc aren’t given enough time to really develop. The concept of mental illness and women depicted as mad is a strong trope in both literature and film and by not exploring it in Lizzie, it very much feels like a missed opportunity.

While much of the film is a slow-moving drama, heavy on dialogue and scenes that primarily contain only two characters in a frame, the last 20 minutes are a blood-fueled trip that will please horror fans. By these final moments, after witnessing Andrew’s resentment towards Lizzie and his sexual abuse towards Sullivan, viewers won’t gripe when he finally gets his.

Lizzie is an intriguing take on a well-known story, which generally makes the viewer feel empathy towards Borden, whose lesbian tryst was an affront to her high-society family and social norms of the late 19th Century. The real highlight of the film is Stewart and Sevigny’s scenes together. If only there were more of them.

Overall score: 7/10

 

Sometimes Dead Is Better: A Review of Pet Semetary (2019)

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Over the years, Stephen King has retold the story of writing Pet Semetary and wanting to bury the manuscript because he felt like it was the bleakest novel he had written. Indeed, it is a depressing story that deals with the heaviness of grief and a family who suffers one loss after another, all within the span of a few short days. The new film, directed by Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, is especially faithful to the novel in terms of tone, subject matter, and theme, despite two drastic changes to the story. The film’s major flaw, if it could be considered a flaw, is just how  grim and humorless it is, especially the final act.

The basic premise of the film is the same as King’s novel and Mary Lambert’s 1989 adaption. Doctor Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) relocates from Boston to Ludlow, Maine with his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their two children, Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Gage (Hugh and Lucas Lavoie), so he can take a job at a local university. Soon after relocating, the family befriends Jud (John Lithgow), who tells them about the “Pet Semetary” on their property and eventually introduces Louis to land just beyond the cemetery that has the power to reanimate the dead. At its core, the new film, like its predecessors, is a rumination on grief and loss.  One of the most powerful scenes occurs when Ellie first questions her parents about the process of death and asks why animals, including her precious tomcat Church, don’t live as long as humans. Louis tries to answer her in a rational, scientific manner, while Rachel offers a more faith-based opinion. This short scene illustrates Louis and Rachel’s different parenting styles and their contrasting views on death, while also adapting one of the most poignant scenes of the novel, the moment that a child starts to process what it means to die.

The film’s heaviness doesn’t relent, as Louis fails to save a student, Victor Pascow (Obssa Ahmed), who is hit by a car on campus and returns in Louis’ dreams to warn him that the barrier “shouldn’t be broken.” The Pascow of this version lacks the heart of Brad Greenquist’s performance in Lambert’s adaptation. Greenquist’s Pascow at least smiled every now and then, even with half of his skull busted open and bleeding. Ahmed’s ghastly version  matches the somber, gray tones of the film and the fog-heavy shots of the cemetery. Ahmed’s role is only to provide dire warnings to Louis, staring at him with red eyes, speaking to him as blood leaks from his skull.

Not long after Pascow’s introduction, Church is hit by a roaring semi and Jud helps Louis bury him in supernatural soil. Of course, he returns, but different. He hisses, growls, and stinks so bad that Ellie doesn’t want  him anywhere near her bedroom.

The trailer already spoiled one of the main story changes. It’s Ellie who is hit by a truck and dies, not Gage. Her death is especially effective because the first half of the film gives her plenty of screen time and develops the close-knit relationship that she has with her family. She becomes quite an evil presence in the last act, her face marked with black veins, her voice a growl. She delivers some of the curses and diabolical lines that a reanimated Gage says in the novel, but it’s more realistic coming from a nine-year-old compared to a two-year-old.

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Ellie (Jete Laurence) and Louis (Jason Clarke)

Kolsh and Widmyer also succeeded in showing the impact of grief on the characters. By the film’s last 30 minutes, Louis is so tormented by all of the death that he becomes red-eyed and ragged. Rachel, meanwhile, is haunted by memories of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levin), who died young from spinal meningitis. Zelda plays as large of a role in this film as she does in the novel, and she’s a terrifying presence, heard in the walls of the new house, a manifestation of Rachel’s trauma.

The second major change comes within the final minutes, and it’s a drastic departure from the novel and Lambert’s adaption. It punctuates the film with an utterly glum tone, while King’s final pages are more ambiguous. It’s likely that this ending will be polarizing for fans of the original film and King’s book, but the ending makes Kolsh and Widmyer’s film distinct and is consistent with the overall atmosphere, performances, and story of their remake.

Overall, Pet Semetary is a layered meditation on death and grief. With the huge resurgence of all things Stephen King, it’s likely that the film will do well at the box office, but its main flaw is that it doesn’t have many, if any, lighter moments, and it will undoubtedly be compared to Lambert’s 1989 film, which has amassed a cult following in the horror community over the years. Still, Kolsh and Widmyer managed to maintain the core of King’s novel, while making some changes  that are well-suited for the film that they wanted to make.